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Adult child of abuse struggles with perceived caregiving obligation

In today's "Minding Our Elders" column, Carol Bradley Bursack advocates for forgiveness, but says no one is obligated to put themselves through emotional hell to help a parent navigate aging.

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Carold Bradley Bursack, "Minding Our Elders" columnist.
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Dear Carol: My dad is mentally ill and was abusive to us children as we grew up. Mother failed to protect us and now has left him. My siblings have both died from suicide and my father has become quite helpless. I went into therapy because of the abuse and even became a counselor, but it’s so different when you’re dealing with your own history that I’m struggling with what an adult child should do in this situation.

Since I’ve read other articles that you’ve written addressing concerns similar to mine, I’m not really looking for more information so much as for validation and support which I know that you’ll give, so thank you in advance. — HG

Dear HG: While few people have ideal childhoods, most are relatively nourishing or at least not abusive. Tragically, there are also many like you who were abused, and I weep for you in my heart.

You’ve done a significant amount of painful emotional work to have come this far, so give yourself credit for determination and resilience. Because you’ve done so much to help yourself, I agree that support is likely what you need rather than additional information.

Your question does, however, provide a springboard for me to refresh your thoughts and maybe help others who might now be as far along as you are:


  • You are not obligated to put yourself through emotional hell to help a parent navigate aging.
  • Having said that, I advocate for forgiveness, mostly because doing so helps the person who has been harmed. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, nor does it mean providing care for your parent regardless of the risk to yourself. It’s a means, though, of letting go of active resentment that can harm you.

RELATED COLUMNS: What can caregivers talk about during video or in-person elder visits? In today's "Minding Our Elders" column, Carol says there are online tools and services that can help us learn more about our loved ones and make visits less awkward.
| More options for elder-friendly tech and care support options In today's "Minding Our Elders" column, Carol recommends things that can help us stay connected with loved ones during the pandemic and even after.
| The emotional turmoil of bedside vigils In today's "Minding Our Elders" column, Carol offers advice to a reader wondering what she can do for her dying mother — and for herself.
| Why won't the doctor do more tests on my older parent? In today's "Minding Our Elders" column, Carol Bradley Bursack says this has been the prevailing policy for many thoughtful clinicians over the last few years.
| Should we keep telling Dad that he has Alzheimer's? In today's "Minding Our Elders" column, Carol Bradley Bursack says older parents are rarely gracious about accepting limitations of dementia.

  • Sometimes it helps if we realize that the abusive parent was probably also abused as a child. This doesn’t excuse their actions, but it might help you understand that who you are as a person didn’t cause you to be abused.
  • For those adult children of abuse who feel an obligation to help an older parent, it’s OK to try just as long as you do only what you can without suffering more emotional damage. If you choose to move forward as a caregiver, I’d advise continuing with counseling.
  • If you choose to be involved, I’d consider hiring a geriatric care manager (GCM) because doing so places a layer of protection between you and your parent. This distance allows you to gradually determine how much of a relationship with your father is possible without harming yourself. The GCM will handle much of the day-to-day care planning.
  • If you choose to be actively involved in caring for your father, you might find some degree of healing — or find that you need to withdraw. Do what is best for you. Having both a therapist and a GCM in your corner should help as you work through the process.

I wish you well, HG. You are a solid person with a good heart.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories.” Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached through the contact form on her website.

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